CHN: Congress Behind Schedule on Appropriations Bills; Stopgap Spending Piece Looks Unavoidable

To date, the House has passed seven of the 12 required FY 2015 appropriations bills. The Senate has passed eight bills out of committee, but none have been brought to a floor vote due in part to the possibility of contentious amendments. With August recess and election activity constraining the legislative schedule, Congress will almost certainly have to pass a continuing resolution (CR) to serve as a stopgap spending measure. The resolution will allow Congress to avoid a government shutdown when the new fiscal year begins October 1st.
While the exact timeline for the continuing resolution is unclear, it is expected to pass Congress in September and fund the government into November or December. In most cases, a CR maintains current levels of funding, sometimes with a few exceptions for specific programs. This postpones choices about the best use of the limited funds available. Human needs organizations that receive federal funding cannot plan for the rest of the year when they are stuck for two or three months or more at current levels. Differences between the House and Senate make it unclear whether specific programs will gain, lose, or stay the same once a permanent funding bill passes Congress. The lack of clarity is especially true for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, because neither the House nor Senate had gotten their appropriations bills for these programs through their full Appropriations Committees. To stake out funding levels it hopes will prevail in a future negotiation, in July the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for Labor-HHS-Education released the full detail of what it had earlier approved.

In its initial allocating of the total for appropriations, the Senate had provided the same amount for Labor-HHS-Education for FY 2015 as is available in FY 2014 ($156.77 billion). The House had cut the total for these programs by nearly $1.1 billion, to $155.69 billion. So the Senate would be expected to do better for the “Labor-H” programs than the House. Still, no increase overall forces the Senate to pick winners and losers, especially because the surge in child refugees requires a substantial increase in funding to meet their needs (see article elsewhere in this issue).

The Senate appropriators recommended $2.55 billion for Refugee and Entrant Assistance, up more than $1 billion from initial funding this year. The Senate’s emergency supplemental funding also proposes considerably more to close out FY 2014. These increases to meet unanticipated needs underscore the difficulties imposed by tight funding caps. While the Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee struggled to provide adequate funding for priorities like early childhood and special education and substance abuse/mental health services, other programs did not fare as well.

CHN tracks appropriations levels over time, and has compiled a table of more than 130 human needs programs, showing funding trends from FY 2010 through FY 2014 (the current year). A look at the programs appropriated within the Senate FY15 Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee bill showed an increase in funding over FY 14 levels for 38 of the human needs programs that CHN tracks. In addition to the refugee assistance gains, the subcommittee provided a $98 million (4.2 percent) increase in the Child Care and Development Block Grant, a $20 million (4.3 percent) increase for the Mental Health Block Grant, a $75 million (4.3%) increase for the Substance Abuse Treatment Block Grant, and a $1.082 billion (9.4%) increase in special education (IDEA Part B Grants to States). There were 35 programs with stagnant FY 2014 funding levels, including Child Welfare Services, the Community Services Block Grant, IDEA (special education) Preschool Grants, and Migrant Student Education. Of course, with capped spending levels (as a result of the Ryan-Murray budget agreement passed in December 2013, the spending cap for all non-defense discretionary funding for FY 2015 is $492.4 billion), increases for some programs means decreases for others. There were 31 programs that saw decreases to the already meager levels, including Mental Health Programs of Regional and National Significance with a $7.7 million (2%) cut, a $34.2 million (1%) cut in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and a $5.9 million (0.7%) cut in Nutrition for the Elderly. With a smaller Labor-HHS-Education allocation on the House side, even more cuts are likely. Further, because the House wants to offset its more modest emergency supplemental spending with other program cuts, final agreement on these domestic priorities may prove challenging.

During the lame-duck session that follows the November elections, Congress may attempt to combine all of the twelve appropriations bills into an omnibus bill, or combine several of the bills into a number of smaller ‘minibus’ bills, to cover the rest of FY 15. This allows them to debate and pass multiple appropriations measures at the same time. But if the makeup of Congress changes significantly in the election, it is possible no agreements will be reached, with final appropriations decisions put off until after the new Congress arrives in January.

Budget and Appropriations
Policy Analyses and Research